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Conscious Complaining: Getting to the Core of Relationship & Parenting Issues

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We all have complaints about our spouses and kids. Yet voicing them can easily lapse into blaming, judgment and criticism, which are toxic to our relationships.

How can we complain in a way that allows us to vent and stay positively engaged with those we’re complaining about?

Author Karla McLaren coined the phrase “conscious complaining” as a way to productively release some of our negativity. She suggests that we do our venting far away from those with whom we’re upset. Not by getting together with friends and reviewing a laundry list of grievances about our loved ones, but by tackling that list on our own.

Here’s my twist on McLaren’s conscious complaining technique:

1. Find a private space—away from prying  family eyes—and write down every complaint you have about your spouse and kid/s. Yes, every single one.

2. Then, rank them from “most irritating” to “least irritating.”

3. Read your list out loud. As silly as it sounds, voicing grievances—without worrying about hurting someone else’s feelings—is cathartic. Read your list out loud again, this time with feeling. If a complaint irritates you, say so. If it saddens you, admit it. If it frustrates, exhausts, alienates or infuriates you, this is the time and place to get it all out, if only with yourself.

4. Then, revisit your ranking to ensure it accurately reflects how you’re feeling now, after having had a chance to “kvetch” out loud.

5. Jot down your 3 most irritating complaints on a blank piece of paper. We’ll return to your Top 3 shortly.

I share McLaren’s belief in the importance of conscious complaining, but venting doesn’t easily translate into feeling close to the folks we’re upset with.

How can complaints about spouses and kids help us get closer?

When I was a kid, I loved scratch art: I’d draw random shapes and patterns with brightly colored crayons and, then, coat what I’d created with a thick layer of black. I remember staring at that drawing, a straightened paperclip in my hand, anticipating the rush of scratching blackness to release the colors underneath.

Our complaints are a lot like that layer of black crayon: dark, pervasive and seemingly impenetrable. Yet beneath our grievances are brightly colored desires that we believe, or fear, won’t see the light of day. How can we get to the colors?

Consider each of your Top 3 complaints separately and ask yourself:
What’s my dream or hope that’s being threatened, or that I fear will be ruined, because of the issue I’m complaining about?

Take Carolyn and her husband Seth* for example. Carolyn had become increasingly upset with Seth’s long workdays and habit of returning home  just as their three kids were getting ready for bed. The kids would get so excited to see their father that bedtime got bumped by hours, leaving them exhausted on the following school day.

When she brought this topic up in a session, Carolyn announced that she was going to forbid Seth from coming home from work near bedtime, given that his arrival was so disruptive of the kids’, and her own, routine.

I acknowledged her right to “lay down the law.” I also suggested that she tap into the dreams or desires at the core of her complaint. Why? To help her shift from criticizing her husband–she admitted she thought he was to blame–to communicating constructively with him.

When Carolyn started thinking about the core of her complaint, her personal yearnings emerged. As a stay-at-home mom, she gets so little time to herself that she hated losing nighttime hours. As the parent responsible for getting up early, preparing children’s lunches and readying them for school, her own sleep and her kids’ slumber are precious to her. She was upset about potential exhaustion and having to deal with her kids’ sleep-deprived moodiness.

When Carolyn was leaving, I encouraged her to keep thinking about the wants or hopes at the core of her complaint. Like scratch art, the more we dig into our complaints, the more our complex and colorful dreams get revealed.

What did she discover? That in addition to her personal yearnings, she wanted their kids to go to sleep earlier so that she could have more time to spend with Seth. She realized that she was really missing adult-time with her husband.

Instead of leading with a command that Seth not come home at bedtime, which he’d have likely experienced as a criticism, Carolyn opened their conversation by telling him how much she misses him and their alone-time. She also shared how hard it is for her to wrangle the kids when they’re sleep-deprived.

Guess what? Seth missed their time alone, too. They booked a date-night on the spot. Plus, he came up with the following bedtime strategy: Seth committed to trying to get home by 6 pm and, on days when he can’t, he’ll come home after the kids are down for the count, so as not to disturb their schedule.

By digging to the core of her complaint, Carolyn not only discovered compelling personal and relationship desires that were being compromised, but by sharing her discoveries with Seth, she increased her connection with her husband and they found a way to coparent more effectively.

Complaints aren’t always, or only, what they seem.

Our gripes often go hand in hand with criticism, judgment and blame. But if we get more conscious and constructive about them, and dig to their core, we just might reconnect with our dreams and desires.

There’s no guarantee that, if we share our yearnings with our spouses and kids, they’ll appreciate our desires or help us honor them. Worst case scenario, we’ll have found a constructive way to express what we want, without criticizing and judging the ones we love in the process.

Best case?  Our complaints will bond us further with our loved ones.

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* Names and details have been changed to protect client privacy.